Fifteen years ago, “Donnie Darko” hit the theaters and whether you loved it or hated it, if you saw the movie, you had an opinion. Locally, opinion was profoundly in favor of the picture. “Donnie Darko” won the San Diego Film Critics Society Award in 2001 for Best Screenplay for Richard Kelly. I was a voting member of the society and the discussion before the vote was a short one. No doubt in my mind, the original version was brilliant and thought provoking. It was also seriously friggin’ disturbing. In 2004, there was a director’s cut.
If I can bitch for a minute about director’s cuts: Most of them are unnecessary and vanity projects. Is the “Blade Runner” director’s cut better? Marginally in some ways, but for the most part, no. Was Michael Cimino’s director’s cut of “Heaven’s Gate” better? Not even remotely. I’m not sure if George Lucas’ Star Wars special editions count as director’s cuts, but Lord, they were hideous. Why mess with a good thing. There may be times when the director’s vision of a film gets compromised and studio interference makes what might have been an entertaining film into a bad one. If that happens, by all means, recut the thing. Edit, add deleted scenes, re-shoot the ending, whatever you you need to do. But why take a successful work and tinker with it until the charm or the intrigue of the original is lost?
The newer version of “Donnie Darko” is still a very good movie, but it’s altered just enough to be slightly worse. Many of the scenes added to the revised version don’t add anything to the film. As an example, the added scene between Donnie’s parents in the café just felt like it didn’t fit or match the pace of the rest of the film. One new scene is pointless. One of Donnie’s buddies on the bus tells Cherita that he hopes she gets molested. What? How does that fit the story? How is that anything but insensitive and asinine? Maybe that was the point.
In the original release, Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon” was key to introducing Donnie, his off-kilter life and his family. In the director’s cut, we get INXS “Never Tear Us Apart.” Maybe it’s personal taste, but Echo has a creepier sound that sets up a vibe for the rest of the film. INXS gives off more of a determined to hold out, no-matter-what feel. Not what the film sets out to do.
Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is still a Holden Caulfield-like character, the film still works as a tale of a teenager’s odd sexual fantasies and an imaginary friend/bunny. There’s the odd possibility that Gretchen (Jena Malone) may be imaginary too. She’s the girl he meets, but chances are she’s just a manifestation of his raging libido. Dr. Thurman (Katherine Ross) may be all too real. There is still plenty of awkward dialogue between Donnie and his doctor. He mentions watching “Married… With Children” and fantasizing having sex with Christina Applegate; it is unsettling because it seems to come from an honest place for the character.
I’ll avoid watching the director’s cut and stick with the original. The one that made me squirm in my seat, but kept my interest. The film that made me walk out of the theater and wonder, “What the Hell did I just watch?” It was a question that warranted repeated viewings to answer. I wish Donnie Darko a happy fifteenth birthday, and hope he gets emotional help. Or a girlfriend.